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  • Writer's pictureHannah

We are all Champions

I never really thought of Israel as a birdy place. I also never knew much about the country other than vague information about Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza Strip – all places my mother would rather I not go. But just a few short years ago, I first heard of the Champions of the Flyway…and being the competitive person and dreamer that I am, I wanted to participate.

However, never in my wildest dreams did I think that 2020 would be the year. But it came when my friend, Amy, posted on the socials that she would be competing on the first all-women, international Champions of the Flyway team, the Women in Steppe. I made a comment, mostly in jest, asking if they needed a podcaster to join the team…because honestly who doesn’t 😊? Amy said “sure” and then all that stood in my way was Erik and my life responsibilities. Doesn’t sound too tough, right? Well, the competition falls right in the middle of Spring Break and as a hotelier, that doesn’t jive. Fortunately, I was somehow talked my mom into covering the hotel while I took part in this opportunity of a lifetime. And as for Erik, he just needs reassurance we can pay for it and that my parents will cover the hotel and not hate us for it.

So, what is the Champions of the Flyway? It is a birding competition that coincides with the Eilat Birding Festival in southern Israel. Starting at midnight on March 31st, 2020, teams will scout Israel for a 24-hour period in search for the most birds they can find. But, leading up to that point teams work their friends, family, and other angles to raise the most money they can for a conservation action. Each year a different conservation action is chosen and since 2014 when the competition started, over $500,000 has been raised for things like protecting vultures in the Rift Valley of Kenya, reducing illegal killing of birds in Croatia and Serbia, and illegal trapping of song birds for the black market in Greece.

In 2020, the conservation action is focusing on just one species, the Steppe Eagle. This species is listed as globally endangered by the IUCN with just about 50,000 mature individuals left on this planet. They were once widespread throughout their range but have seen a drastic decline in recent years.

They are described as large eagles with rich brown plumage, wide wings, and like many eagles, splayed “fingers” at their wingtips. Juveniles will take four years to attain adult plumage in the meantime it will have a white trailing edge of the underwing coverts bordered with black until they turn into an entirely dark brown adult. Steppe Eagles can be found on open, rocky habitats, such as grasslands, scrub, wetlands, and mountains and will regularly feed on carcasses with vultures.

Steppe Eagles face many threats throughout their range, including challenges related to:

· Annual & Perennial Non-Timber Crops

· Renewable Energy

· Utility & Service Lines

· Hunting & Trapping Terrestrial Animals

· Agricultural & Forestry Effluents

For more detailed information about the life history of the Steppe Eagle can be found here.

So back to the team. It is composed of five strong, great women birders:

There’s Alena Kacal who is from Trinidad, moved to New England, and then relocated to Israel where she is now the Director of the Jerusalem Bird Observatory. I first started following Alena after she posted to the World Girl Birders Facebook page about women usage of eBird in Israel and beyond. She has participated in the Champions of the Flyway AND lives in Israel, so we are all really relying on her skill, expertise, and networking.

Fatefully, I met Amy Summerfelt this past summer while researching Marbled Murrelets for the podcast through our mutual friend, Laura Paulson. Amy lives between Texas and Oregon and birds all over. She has visited Israel several times before and was hooked into birding this section of the world after a trip to the Hula Valley Bird Festival.

Lisa Schibley is another acquaintance from the socials. Her posts to the World Girl Birders Facebook page inspired me to look deeper into the gender issues that exist in the birding world after she pointed out the discrepancies presented in guiding advertisements in birding magazines. Lisa represents the East Coast and is the North American Coordinator for the International Shorebird Survey for Manomet.

Lidiya Naomi Jurborsky-Skhinas is from Uzbekistan and now living in Israel studying bird-ringing at the Jerusalem Bird Observatory. She started birding when her mother asked her to photograph a European Bee-eater and then started birding seriously in college. Additionally, Lidiya manages a website that is a great information source for Uzbekistani birds. She is also an accomplished photographer, having won awards for her photographs.

Lastly, there’s me representing the West Coast and #podnation. And together we form the Women in Steppe.

Together we have been studying, fundraising, and spreading awareness about the Champions of the Flyway and the plight of the Steppe Eagles. But for me, the underlying topic is really women birders. In the past few months I have thought, written, and had lots of conversations about the role gender plays in birding. (If you really want to hear how I feel about it, check out my previous blog post and a future one I am still mulling through.)

Women are having successes breaking through the Old Boys Club of birding in the United States…but throughout the world they are having a harder go. I hope during my lifetime we get to a point where women aren’t second-guessed on bird IDs, aren't birdsplained to, and don’t ever feel unsafe while birding.

The Women in Steppe are lucky to have so many supportive friends, family, and organizations that are helping us in our mission. Kowa Sporting Optics is sponsoring us and providing us with optic equipment to use during the competition, which is exciting as I’ve never used Kowa gear before. And also Wunderbird, a professional birding apparel company is sponsoring us with some sweet shirts for the day of the competition. Thank you to all that have supported us!

We may not raise the most money, see the most birds, or have the biggest network. But we are showing what women can do when they are determined and I hope inspire others and encourage others to build on what we do, as we stand on the shoulders of those that have come before us. US President Theodore Roosevelt once said “Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty” and although changing mindsets, cultures, and the community is hard, if that means more people feel welcome and comfortable to go birding, it is worth the effort.

Click here for more about the Women in Steppe. And help us reach our fundraising goal. You can also support us by purchasing stickers at our Etsy site.

All donations go to BirdLife International, the world’s largest nature conservation partnership and the world leader in bird conservation.

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